Know Your Run History: The Legend of Michael Johnson

By Jesse (Specs) Spellman

Before Usain Bolt’s historic world record of 19:19 in the 200 meter race at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and before Wayde Van Niekerk’s 43:03 world record in the 400 meter in the Rio Olympics, there were four memorable days in July and August of 1996 where a legend was born. If you had a chance to watch, see him live, or be anywhere close to Olympic Village, you were lucky enough to witness greatness, to witness a man so focused on a mission, on doing something thats never been done. And in doing so, he was so confident he even wore the gold shoes to match. His name is Michael Johnson. 

Getty – Michael Johnson 1996 400 meter race

For four days in ’96, there was a buzz around the 200 and 400 meter event, both main attractions of the Summer Olympic games. Johnson, who could have easily had success in the 1992 Barcelona games, was unfortunately unable to participate due to food poisoning 10 days earlier. So for four years, Johnson was as ready and as prepared as he could be. A four year build up, preparing to run as fast as you can for less than a minute.

Getty Images

On July 29th, 1996, the evening of the 400 meter final, Michael Johnson walked out of the tunnel with a focused look – he knew the race and record was his. With a stoic demeanor, Johnson walked to his signature lane 4 surrounded by elite runners such as Roger Black, Davis Kamoga, and Alvin Harrison, to name a few. Johnson then laced up his golden Nike track cleats. As if the buzz around Olympic Stadium wasn’t enough, it then grew even larger. Now donned with his signature gold cleats and gold chain, Johnson settled into the starting position for his first final of the 400 meter. Quietness settled, followed by the start gun, then a stadium full of flash bolts as Michael Johnson lifts off. Running with ease in the 400 with his signature chest up, head up, and powerful stride, Michael Johnson easily wins the gold and the event with an Olympic record time of 43:49.

Getty Images

Fast forward three days later to August 1st, 1996. This time in lane 3, Johnson is prepared for the main event – the 200 meter final. This field included Ato Bolden, Frankie Fredricks, and Obadele Thompson – a field full of speed. As Johnson settled into lane 3, we yet again witnessed the gold nike cleats, and as a runner we have a tendency to have different types of focus for different races. We knew the 400 meter was business as usual, but for the 200 meter final Johnson was mentally tapped in as there was nothing that was going to deter him or stop him from winning this race. Johnson again walked and crouched into his starting position, Olympic Stadium quieted, and the gun again went off. Thousands of cameras flashed at the start to bear witness to history in the moment. Years later, Johnson actually mentions that people don’t realize he, anxious to start, actually stumbled out the gate in preparation to get to top speed. He managed to quickly recover, reaching his top speed through the turn. As Johnson turned towards the straight with his signature ‘chest up, head up’ form he finished at a then world record: 19.32 seconds. Johnson did something that was never done in Olympic history as he won gold in the 400 and 200 meter races, achieving greatness on home turf in the Atlanta 1996 Olympics. 

Johnson wins easily with a then World Record 19.32 seconds

In the 2000 Sydney Olympics Johnson would go on to defend his 400 meter crown and succeed in winning gold once again. Johnson’s 1996 200 meter record stood for 13 years until 2009, which was broken by the all-time great Usain Bolt. We’ll save Bolt’s story for another Know Your Run History segment.

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